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A hot topic: to burn or not to burn?

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A variety of backyard bloomers can attract and sustain pollinators, birds and other wildlife.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin file photo
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My sweet husband is kind of a pyro. When we were first married, there came a quick realization that this was just a part of his being. Some folks like to shop in their free time. Others like to go for drives, while some enjoy golf. Pat enjoys burning.

If I am away from the house on weekends, chances are good that he will either be lighting up small “brush piles” or cutting firewood, creating new piles to burn later. His mantra is simple — there’s nothing like wood heat in the winter, and he’s totally right, but I still need to give him a rough time.

However, when he announced that it was a perfect day to burn the prairies on our property, I was in complete agreement. It was going to be a Goldilocks kind of day; it had rained recently so the humidity was right, a nice breeze (not too gusty to drive a fire out of control, but just enough to fan the flames a bit) and extra hands (our son Alex and his girlfriend, Lauren) were available to assist. The sun was shining, which put everyone in a good mood.

Why would we do this, you might ask? Was pyro Pat out of control?

As it turns out, no. Historically, fires raced across the plains due to lightning strikes and human activity. Native plant communities evolved with fire. Burning the prairie returns nutrients to soil, encourages quick re-growth, and helps prevent invasive species from gaining a stronghold. Fire also kills woody plants that would otherwise take over. In fact, at our place, busy-body squirrels in the adjacent woodland have been doing a super job caching food for the winter — forgotten black walnuts have sprouted everywhere in the grassland.


Given a chance (no fire or mowing), our prairie would naturally revert to a wooded state, and that’s not something we want. According to the Minnesota DNR, just a tiny fraction (1%!) remains of the original 18 million acres of native grassland once estimated to cover the south and western portions of the state. With that in mind, all systems were “go” for a burn.

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Wildlife, including this turkey, were sprung by the advancing prairie burn.
Contributed / Melissa Gerken

As flames started reaching for the sky, evidence of hidden life became evident. Wild turkeys suddenly burst from the dried grasses, hastily winging out of harm’s way. Recently returned song sparrows, perching on raspberry canes, kept eyes on the fire as it crept closer. A red-tailed hawk soared over the outskirts of the blaze, scanning for an easy meal.

Indeed, after the fire had passed, the hawk dropped down to the ashes, snatched up an unlucky rodent and devoured it whole. Later, a northern flicker alighted on a newly exposed anthill, in anticipation of a feast. Satisfied with another burn safely accomplished, the crew broke out the cooler and tipped back a beer (or two!) to celebrate.

At dusk that night, we took a break from the TV and headed outside. A distinct, repeating nasal “Peent!” emanated from a portion of the prairie we purposely left unburned-a lonely male woodcock announcing his presence to the ladies. Fortunate to witness his courtship aerial display, we followed his rotund silhouette as it shot skyward then down as it tumbled, all atwitter, back to terra firma (for those unfamiliar with the woodcock’s spring ritual, it’s worth a YouTube query).

A healthy prairie veritably hums with life, especially during the warmer months. Insects are drawn to blooming flowers and succulent growth, which in turn, attract hungry songbirds, bats and snakes. Wild turkeys and ring-necked pheasants nest and raise their young amongst the thick, protective grasses, taking advantage of the insect smorgasbord.

A prairie in July is undeniably beautiful; I daresay even magical at sunset. For now, the landscape may be brown and unexciting, but warm, green days are ahead. The prairie grasses will resprout with promise of new life to come. We can hardly wait. And Pat? He's already talking about next year’s burn!

Author’s note: Prescribed burns, as these are called, should only be carried out by those with proper training/equipment. DNR permits are required. For more information, contact your county SWCD or extension office.

Melissa Gerken and her patient husband Pat reside in Zumbrota. She is a self-described bird nerd, astronomer wannabe and lover of all things wild. She enjoys sharing her passion for nature with others.


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